Harbour plans pitch town into a fight over its beaches

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The dispute has set neighbour against neighbour and brother against brother. Hayle, a small Cornish town that was once an industrial powerhouse but is now down on its luck, has been divided by an argument about the extraction of sand.

The quarrel, which has involved threats by residents to chain themselves to diggers, has coincided with plans for a £170m scheme to turn the derelict 19th century harbour into a complex of modern shops and restaurants grouped round a marina.

The result of the disagreements has been to lift the lid on tensions simmering in a town that has been waiting decades for redevelopment to make the most of the surrounding three miles of golden beaches.

Prominent figures in the town of 8,500 residents have been accused of attempting to block the redevelopment to revive their own careers, while they in turn have accused a "power bloc" within Hayle of trying to destroy them.

The dispute reached a head in January when Robb Lello, a former mayor of Hayle and a Liberal Democrat councillor in the town for 22 years, warned he would chain himself to diggers moving sand from the estuary because the rate of extraction was making the harbour dangerous for fishermen.

He was backed by a protest group, called Save our Sand, which that feared the extraction by the Hayle Harbour Company was undermining the nearby beaches. The height of the beaches has dropped so much that long-buried Second World War defences had re-emerged and protesters feared further subsidence would threaten future tourism.

Mr Lello's threat was not made lightly, for in taking direct action he would be chaining himself to diggers owned by his brother Chris, one of the contractors removing sand for the Harbour Company, and captain of the local cricket team.

He said yesterday that he did not blame his brother personally, but claimed the Harbour Company had let people down by promising to stop extraction before, only for excavation to be increased so sand could be sold for a profit.

Since he joined demonstrations against the excavation, Mr Lello has been accused of trying to scupper private redevelopment plans to give another chance for a public trust to take over the harbour – an option he championed more than 10 years ago.

However, he said that although he had opposed a previous development scheme, suggested by the property developer Peter de Savary, he backed the new smaller plan and claimed he was the victim of a smear campaign.

"There is a particular power group in the town. I have stepped on a few toes and upset a few factions and now they want me buried for it," he said.

Jeremy Joslin, the chairman of the Hayle Harbour Support Group, insisted the Save Our Sand campaign had been hijacked by people who opposed private development of the area.

"Some people want to turn it into the people's harbour paid for by the rates. Others of us do not want to dress up in Cornish hats and pixie costumes and say hello to tourists in the summer. We want to create our own universe here and become the gateway to west Cornwall that we used to be."

He said the scheme would create about 1,200 jobs in the town that would stop young people having to move out. "Kids from Hayle have to go to Truro or Plymouth. We don't want them to leave and they don't particularly want to leave. This development would give them decent jobs here and it is too serious to be stopped by an issue over sand," he said.

Chris Lello refused to comment on his brother's opposition beyond saying he was simply doing what the Harbour Company told him by removing sand.

He said: "We can choose our friends but not our relations. It just happens that we are totally different. He goes along and does his thing and I do mine. We are not at war. We just keep apart and that's the best way to go on."

The dispute will rumble on today with a demonstration planned by Save Our Sand at the harbour, but a temporary compromise was tentatively agreed yesterday.

London & Amsterdam Developments, which is drawing up development plans with the Harbour Company, negotiated a deal to stop excavation until an expert study was completed into its effects on the beaches and the channel.

Mark Ryder, a director of the London-based company, said the explosion of small-town politics had not put the group off its plans to revive the harbour in a town that once produced the pump that powered the Suez Canal.

"The passion down there is fantastic," he said.